Engineers and Cancer Researchers Join Forces to Advance Medicine

Contact: Anna C. Christensen, achristensen@email.arizona.edu

April 3, 2018

Jennifer Barton and Andrew KraftTUCSON, Ariz. – “How can we get the Cancer Center folks and the engineering folks to talk to each other more?” That was a key question posed by Jennifer K. Barton, PhD, director of the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute, during her opening remarks on March 30 at a joint seminar to promote collaboration between engineers and cancer researchers. “It’s not like we’re strangers, but I think there’s a lot more opportunity that we haven’t tapped.”

Packing the Sabino Room at the Student Union nearly to capacity, researchers from the University of Arizona Cancer Center and the College of Engineering discussed their work, highlighting areas of shared interest. Many audience members stayed longer for an extended Q&A session.

UA Cancer Center Director Andrew S. Kraft, MD, praised the University of Arizona’s deep pool of talent and expressed optimism that cancer researchers could draw from it to enhance their own research.

“The strength of this campus is clearly a lot to do with the engineering that we’re all so proud of,” Dr. Kraft said. “We hope we could intermix that. The goal is to get engineers, clinicians and cancer scientists interacting.”

Dr. Kraft cited the need for better ways to learn about a patient’s cancer. One potential area is in “liquid biopsies,” in which blood samples, rather than surgical biopsies, yield pertinent information about a patient’s unique disease, such as the presence of cancer DNA, parts of cells and novel proteins. Finding more precise methods to measure and analyze these “biomarkers” can give physicians clues about a disease’s progression and how best to treat it.

Cindy MirantiCindy Miranti, PhD, professor of cellular & molecular medicine, reviewed challenges in prostate cancer, for physicians as well as scientists. As prostate cancer is difficult to biopsy, engineers could help develop better diagnostics to catch prostate cancer before it metastasizes. Dr. Miranti also pointed to printing technologies, which could be used to create models that mimic the structure of the bone to investigate how prostate cancer metastasizes in the bone.

Scientists also need better ways to study prostate cancer, which could be aided by what Dr. Miranti called a “prostate cancer chip.” So-called organs-on-chips are microchips imbued with living human cells, which many scientists hope will lead to improvements in medical research. Nonhuman laboratory animals are not always good stand-ins for human disease or drug response, and their use is controversial. Organs-on-chips fuse electrical engineering with living human tissues to enable scientists to study drug response in human cells rather than in lab mice.

Members of the College of Engineering also took a turn sharing their perspectives with the audience. Jerzy Rozenblit, PhD, professor of surgery and electrical & computer engineering, discussed the use of virtual reality to help train surgeons to perform robotic surgery, which he likened to flight simulators used in the training of pilots. Robotic surgery allows surgeons to operate with more precision, often by the use of a camera that displays a high-definition visualization of the surgical site.

Jeong‐Yeol Yoon, PhDJeong‐Yeol Yoon, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering, spoke about biosensors, which are devices that use biologically active components to detect chemicals in a sample. He hopes to make this technology more accessible by bringing it out of research labs and into doctors’ offices and even the aisles of drugstores.

Dr. Yoon’s lab makes attachments that can transform smartphones into laboratory equipment, such as a PCR unit that can deliver “real-time” results, and a microscope that allows users to visualize cells and other samples. Such technology could be used to analyze biopsies.

The crossover in research interests between UA College of Engineering and Cancer Center faculty can facilitate fruitful collaborations. Dr. Kraft hopes this seminar can be a first step in building bridges between these areas of campus.

“We’re looking forward to some interactions,” said Dr. Kraft. “There are a lot of different approaches to problems, but there are a lot of problems out there.”

Participating panelists were:

  • Jennifer K. Barton, PhD, Director, BIO5 Institute; Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Optical Sciences, Agricultural‐Biosystems Engineering
  • Andrew S. Kraft, MD, Director, UA Cancer Center; Professor, Medicine; Senior Associate Dean for Translational Research, UA College of Medicine – Tucson; Associate Vice President for Oncology Programs, UA Health Sciences; The Sydney E. Salmon Endowed Chair, University of Arizona
  • Cindy Miranti, PhD, Professor, Cellular & Molecular Medicine
  • Janet Roveda, PhD, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering
  • Jerzy Rozenblit, PhD, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Surgery
  • Jeong‐Yeol Yoon, PhD, Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Agricultural‐Biosystems Engineering, BIO5 Institute, Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences, Chemistry & Biochemistry
  • Frederic Zenhausern, PhD, MBA, Director, Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine; Professor, Radiation Oncology, Biomedical Engineering

Photo 1 caption: Jennifer K. Barton, PhD (left) and Andrew S. Kraft, MD (right)
Photo 2 caption: Cindy Miranti, PhD
Photo 3 caption: Jeong‐Yeol Yoon, PhD